Letter From Toronto: Films on Striving to Be Black in America

Toronto Film Festival 2019: Beyond Black Lives Matter, “Waves” and “American Son” depict a netherworld where the upper middle class black experience teeters on the edge of tragedy

Two films in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival explore the painful pressures placed on upwardly mobile African American families seeking to get ahead in society. The families may push their kids hard to overachieve, these films say, but they must balance that against the intolerable pressures those efforts may place on them, particularly their sons.

In “Waves,” written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, handsome high school senior Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is close to the gold ring — he trains hard as a competitive wrestler, does his homework, drives a cool car and has a cool girlfriend. His overachieving dad (Sterling K Brown) pushes Tyler still harder — maybe too hard.

But, his dad tells him, it’s for his own good. Life won’t give Tyler anything, he explains in a tough-love exchange. Learn this lesson early, dad says: A young African American man has to perform better than his non-black peers to get ahead. But the father is so busy ensuring his son’s future that he doesn’t notice that Tyler is cracking under the pressure. He’s training too hard and using drugs to cover up a sports injury; he’s also unable to cope with an unexpected turn with…

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Sharon Waxman

Sharon Waxman, CEO and Editor in Chief, is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author, a former Hollywood correspondent for The New York Times and a leading authority on the entertainment business and media. Before the Times, she was a correspondent for eight years for The Washington Post. She started out as a foreign correspondent, covering Europe and the Middle East for a decade. She is the founder and CEO of The Wrap, and the author of two books, including, “Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System.” She can be reached at sharon@thewrap.com.